Engineering Ethics Blog: Google’s Duplex: Fraud or Helpful Assistant?

Duplex is a new technology announced by Google last week in
a presentation by Google CEO Sundar Pichal. 
He played some recordings of what sounded to the uninitiated ear like
humdrum phone calls to a restaurant and a hair salon to make reservations.  In both cases, the business service providers
heard a voice on the other end of the line which sounded to all intents and
purposes like a human being calling on behalf of somebody who was too busy to
make the call herself.  There were
natural-sounding pauses, “hmm”s, and the information about appointments
was conveyed efficiently and without undue confusion. 

The only thing was, there was only one human talking in each
conversation.  The “agent”
making the call was Duplex, an AI system that Google plans to offer to
businesses as a giant step forward in robo-calls and related phone

I happened to hear a couple of these calls on a radio
program, and I must admit the computer-generated audio sounded natural enough
to fool anyone who wasn’t clued in.  Now,
nobody happened to ask the computer’s name or try to start up a conversation with
it about, say, existentialism, and I don’t know what would have happened in
those cases.  But for routine specific
tasks such as making appointments, I suppose Google now has just what we
want.  But is this something we really

Google thinks so, obviously. 
As this example shows, we are rapidly approaching a time when companies
will field AI systems that make or receive phone calls with such a good
imitation of a live person, that the live person on the other end will not
realize that he or she is not talking to another human being.  An Associated Press article about Duplex
focuses on some narrow concerns such as state laws against recording phone
conversations without notification. 
These laws explain why you so often call a business and first hear
something like the phrase, “For quality-assurance purposes, this call may
be recorded or monitored.”  Because
it’s so easy to include that phrase, I see this as a non-issue.

What wasn’t addressed in the reports is a more fundamental
question that relates, believe it or not, to a philosopher named Martin Buber
who died in 1965. 

Buber’s claim to fame is a book called I and Thou which explores the philosophical implications of two
kinds of interactions we can have with the world:  the “I-it” interaction and the
“I-Thou” interaction. 

A very oversimplified version of these ideas is the
following.  When you are interacting with
the world as an I to an it, you are experiencing part of the world, or maybe
using it.  You have an I-it relationship
to a vacuum cleaner, for instance. 

But take two lovers, or a father and a son, or even an
employee and an employer.  The I-Thou
interaction is always possible in these exchanges, in which each person acknowledges
that the other is a living being with infinite possibilities, and ultimately
the relationship has a mystical meaning that is fully known only to God. 

It’s also possible, and happens all too often, that you can
deal with another person using the I-it mode: 
treating them as merely a means to some goal, for example.  But this isn’t the best way to relate to
others, and generally speaking, treating everyone as a Thou respects their
humanity and is the way we want to be treated ourselves.

The problem that facile human-voice-imitation systems like
Duplex can lead to is that they can convince you they’re human, when they’re
not.  As the AP article points out, this
could lead to all sorts of problems if Duplex falls into the wrong hands.  And who is to say whose hands are wrong?  At this point it’s up to Google to decide who
gets to buy the still-experimental service when they think it is ready for
prime time.  But Google is in business to
make a profit, and so ability to pay will be high on their list of desirable
customer characteristics, way ahead of their likelihood not to abuse the

At some level, Pichal is aware of these potential problems,
because he emphasized that part of a good experience with the technology will
be “transparency.” 
Transparency is one of those words that sounds positive, but can have
many meanings, most of them pretty vague. 

In this case, does it mean that any Duplex robot has to
identify itself as such at the beginning of the conversation?  Starting off a phone call with, “Hi, I’m
a robot,” isn’t going to take you very far.  The plain fact of the matter is that the
phone calls Pichal played recordings of were remarkable precisely because the people taking the calls gave no clue that
they thought they were talking to anything other than a fellow human.  And while it might not have been Google’s intention
to deceive people, it is a deception nonetheless.  A benign one, perhaps, but still a deception.

Even if this particular system doesn’t get deployed,
something like it will.  And the problem
I see is that the very obvious and Day-Glo-painted line we now have between
human beings, on the one hand, and robots, on the other hand, will start to dim
and get blurry.  And this won’t be
because some philosophers start talking about robot rights and humans who are
less than human.  No, it will be the
silent argument from experience—as we deal with robots that are
indistinguishable from humans over the phone, we may start to get used to the
idea that maybe there isn’t such a big distinction between the two species
after all.

The movie Her is
about a man who falls in love with a computer voice he names Samantha.  I won’t summarize the plot here, but the
relationship ends badly (for the man, anyway). 
The film was made only five years ago, but already events have
progressed to a point where the film’s thesis has moved from completely
impossible to merely implausible.  Maybe
something like a computer identity badge or some other signal isn’t such a bad
idea.  But before we wholeheartedly
embrace technologies like Duplex, we should run some worst-case scenarios in
detail and think about ways to forestall some of the worst things that could
happen—before they do.

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